Go back in time with a trip to one of these timeless British institutions that serve classic English fare in old-world settings. Though you'll find plenty of traditional dishes on these menus, don't expect to be served the bland and stodgy food that was once synonymous with Britain.
London has come a long way although the pomp and sophistication of its most famous dining establishments remain. From roast game carved tableside in grand, oak-paneled rooms to candle-lit, Edwardian dining dens favored by Charles Dickens, these are some of London's most traditional and authentic eateries that you can still enjoy today.
Wiltons is a seafood institution — Photo courtesy of Wiltons
For a country that boasts nearly 8,000 miles of coastline, the capital city doesn't have many seafood restaurants, surprisingly. But it does have Wiltons, a seafood institution bedecked in sea-green velvet and period details. Wiltons bills itself as a "bastion of Britishness," and as it dates back to the 18th century, who are we to argue?
Located in the heart of London in upscale St James's, Wiltons prides itself on serving the freshest and finest seafood sourced from the British Isles. In fact, their oysters granted the restaurant their first highly prized Royal Warrant, a mark of recognition signifying that Wiltons is a supplier for the British Royal Family.
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The title of London's oldest restaurant goes to Rules, which was established in Covent Garden in 1798 by Thomas Rule. Expect a seasonal menu with plenty of classic country game like pheasant, hare, partridge and grouse, which comes with a warning to be careful of lead shot.
The setting is intrinsically English with plush red velvet booths and irreplaceable illustrations cluttering the gilded walls. With past patrons like Charles Dickens and Charlie Chaplin, and original décor that includes vintage whiskey bottles and stained glass windows, Rules serves history on a plate. Should you not want to stay for a meal, you can also head upstairs for a drink at the bar.
Dine like Princess Margaret at Maggie Jones's — Photo courtesy of Maggie Jones's
The charmingly quaint Maggie Jones's is a rustic farmhouse reprieve tucked away off the streets of Kensington. Stepping into this cozy, candle-lit den is like stepping into The Wind in the Willows. The restaurant's wooden tables are set out in tiny nooks over two small floors, and you'll find dried wildflowers in wicker baskets and English country knickknacks throughout. It's all wonderfully atmospheric.
The restaurant has been around since the '60s and was renamed Maggie Jones's after Princess Margaret who regularly dined there under the pseudonym Maggie Jones. Try the traditional creamed fish pie or the roast, which are both quintessential English countryside picks.
For fish and chips, you can't beat Toff's — Photo courtesy of Toff's
You can't come to London and not try fish and chips. For an authentic bite, head to the family-run Toff's in North London's Muswell Hill. This unfussy "chippie" lists the daily catch on a chalkboard and mainly serves battered, fried fish like cod and haddock alongside fat crispy "chips" (French fries) and mushy peas (basically, what it sounds like).
You can eat in or take your meal to go, which was how fish and chips were traditionally consumed. Also, don't forget to shower your fish and chips with malt vinegar. Try the sticky toffee pudding or the treacle tart for dessert if they have it.
Oscar Wilde Lounge
Oscar Wilde Lounge has been around since 1865 — Photo courtesy of Oscar Wilde Lounge
Located in the historic Hotel Café Royal, the golden, ornate Oscar Wilde Lounge is named after one of its many famous patrons. Dating back to 1865, this gilded jewel box has hosted everyone from Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas to David Bowie, Mick Jagger, and Elizabeth Taylor though probably not at the same time.
Today, the Oscar Wilde Lounge mainly caters to tourists by serving up a decadent (but proper) afternoon tea, which includes crust-less sandwiches, scones with jam and clotted cream, cake and your choice of over 30 teas. For some added glamour (as if you'd need any more in this overtly glamorous setting), there's also a classical pianist to serenade you while you dine.
Simpson's-in-the-Strand first opened in 1828 — Photo courtesy of Simpson's-in-the-Strand
For upmarket British classics with lots of pomp and circumstance, there's The Savoy Hotel's Simpson's-in-the-Strand. Newly revamped dark, oak-paneled interiors foretell what's on the menu: it's all wonderfully rich and luxuriant.
On the "bill of fare" you'll find local oysters and other Simpson's signatures like beef Wellington and steak and kidney pie. But don't miss the iconic serving trolleys, which usher roasted lamb and beef tableside, where it's carved with determined flourish.
The décor has several references to the game of chess, as a nod to the fact that Simpson's was first opened as a chess club and coffee house in 1828.
Quaglino's has catered to the royals for years — Photo courtesy of Quaglino's
Since the 1920s, Quaglino's restaurant and live music venue has been in fashion. Though the interior has been brought up to date, there are still a few Roaring Twenties touches. Throughout the years, a who's who of London society has dined here including British high society staples, the Mountbattens and Evelyn Waugh, as well as Hollywood golden-era stars like Judy Garland.
Quaglino's has also been especially popular with the royals: Princess Margaret had a table permanently reserved and Prince Charles counted it a favorite. It also bears the title of the first public restaurant ever frequented by the reigning monarch, after Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip stopped by for dinner in 1956.
The eponymous Mayflower is located near where the ship first launched — Photo courtesy of The Mayflower
Pub grub epitomizes Englishness and shouldn't be skipped, but don't just pop into any old pub. If you want your pints served with a side of history, check out The Mayflower, one of the oldest pubs along the River Thames. Yes, it's named after that Mayflower, as the historic boat was first launched nearby.
Inside, you'll find warm and cozy interiors with lots of ales on tap. The first floor serves as the restaurant, dishing up British pub staples like sausages with mashed potatoes (bangers and mash). In the summer, you can sit outside along the river. The pub also contains a book of descents for those who claim the pilgrims as ancestors.
Bring a hefty appetite to Simpsons Tavern — Photo courtesy of Simpsons Tavern
Simpsons Tavern, which first opened in 1757, is a simple old-fashioned chophouse straight out of the past with wooden booths and a buzzy crowd scoffing down thick, hearty fare that seems right out a Charles Dickens classic. Though this nostalgic establishment seems completely untouched by the centuries, some things have changed with the times.
For example, Simpsons Tavern didn't start admitting ladies until 1916. Nowadays, anyone with a big appetite is more than welcome to enjoy dishes like the traditional Edwardian pork chop or calves liver and bacon with caramelized onions (don't knock it 'til you've tried it).
You must take afternoon tea at The Wolseley — Photo courtesy of The Wolseley
You simply cannot come to London and not indulge in a proper afternoon tea, which, for the record, is so much more than just tea: It's a meal in itself. Though The Wolseley isn't nearly as old as some of the other places on this list, it serves a formal English afternoon tea in the traditional grand European fashion.
Tea starts with finger sandwiches in several very British flavors like egg and watercress, and salmon and cream cheese. Next, you're served a round of British cakes like Victoria sponges and sherry trifles and, of course, there are the freshly baked scones served with thick clotted cream and berry jam.